A Stronger North State: Pursuing a Vision of an Equitable North Carolina

North Carolina has a surging statewide policy and civic engagement infrastructure fighting for fair legislative maps, voting rights, policies that advance economic opportunity, and public investment in programs that benefit families of all wealth levels. Blueprint NC is the “state table” that knits together nearly 50 organizations to align strategy and share resources. These member groups are developing a base of skilled leaders who can advocate on behalf of their communities, engage meaningfully in the democratic process at the local and state levels and bring people along with them. They are engaging in nonpartisan research and strategic communications, putting shrewd analysis into the hands of policymakers, journalists, advocates and voters. They are fighting powerful, monied headwinds. And they are doing all of these things with an explicit focus on racial equity, meeting folks where they are, building trusting relationships, organizing communities of color, immigrant communities and white communities, offering alternative forms of inclusion and hope in hotbeds of white supremacist activity. 

Erin Byrd and Chris Kromm

Shifting political winds

“States like North Carolina increasingly set the tone nationally,” said Chris Kromm, Executive Director of the Institute for Southern Studies. Kromm pointed out North Carolina has the ninth largest population of any state and is growing rapidly, primarily due to newcomers from other countries and other parts of the United States. The state is expected to gain a seat in Congress in 2021, thanks in large part to booming black, Asian and Latinx populations. “Ninety percent of Latinx people under the age of 18 are citizens. Over the next few years, they will change the makeup of the overall electorate as it starts to skew a lot younger.”

Competing interests have long battled for control of North Carolina, and in the early 2000s, the pro-democracy movement notched several wins: a bigger electorate, fewer barriers to the ballot box, expanded early voting, money out of politics, public financing of judicial elections and other victories. Voting rights opponents, meanwhile, were forming think tanks, polling outfits and a political spending apparatus to shift the policy debate. After the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, outside groups began to pour money into the state to change the legislature and reverse many of those hard-fought voting access gains. When the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, North Carolina implemented a voter ID law intended to disenfranchise black and Latinx voters. “The legislature looked at race-based data and the kind of licenses people had and made sure to disadvantage black and brown voters,” said Tomas Lopez, Executive Director of Democracy NC, an organization working to protect and expand access to the ballot. “With voter ID laws, confusion results, and it’s a feature, not a bug. The broader message is, ‘you don’t matter, the system is rigged against you.’ We’ve been working to counter confusion and apathy.”

The resulting political shift rendered advocates’ “inside” strategy ineffective. “Since the legislature flipped in 2010, you can no longer go into the legislative building as a progressive and expect to be heard in any meaningful way,” said Erin Byrd, Executive Director of the Partnership Funds and former Executive Director of Blueprint. “We were getting pushed out of the building, not getting our voices heard.”

Lopez agreed. “Before 2010, Democracy NC’s key strategy was to work within existing political structures to create change. After 2010, those doors shut. It became clear we needed to get to deep-seated structural and cultural issues, lifting up in a meaningful way people that had been shut out – black and brown voices, low-wealth voices, folks that hadn’t been involved in the process.”

Locked out of the capitol – sometimes literally – these groups turned their focus on leadership development, local policy campaigns, voting rights, organizing, integrated voter engagement, and litigation. They share a vision of a long-term, engaged electorate that is reflective of the state’s demographics and supportive of policies that move everyone forward. “There was a lot of conversation about the need to build organizing capacity,” said Byrd. 

“The shift presented a challenge and an opportunity,” said Ivan Parra, Executive Director of North Carolina Congress of Latino Organizations. “The challenge was the number of anti-immigrant policies at the state level. Our organization moved from service provision to organizing, playing defense when we could and offense when we needed to. It allowed us to think differently about long-term power and capacity building.”

Building power with a racial equity focus

The renewed emphasis on organizing and power building brought previously disparate communities and organizations together, giving rise to multi-issue, multi-racial coalitions.

“Prior to this awakening, we weren’t called to this level of collaboration,” said Ivanna Gonzalez, Blueprint’s Interim Co-Director. “Our theory of change was that if we built the capacity of individual movements – the environmental movement, the women’s movement – they’d win and we’d all be better off for it. Now there’s an understanding of shared metrics, shared wins, shared values, shared space, what it means when we come together.”

From voting rights to education equity to environmental justice, countless issues at every level affect black and Latinx families more acutely than white families. Many of these policies are vestiges of the structural and institutional racism on which America was founded. Many, however, are modern-day incarnations that can’t be blamed on our founders. Race has also long been used as a wedge to divide Americans, and that strategy continues to this day in North Carolina. “There was a bill that would have reclassified primarily black and brown employees across the UNC system, where students are overwhelmingly white, to cut down on costs to lower tuition,” said Gonzalez. “It’s this consistent thread of pitting folks struggling most against one another and absolving the folks who are actually at fault. Politicians have explicitly pointed the finger at working-class people, black and new immigrants to distract us from the people who are really responsible for our situation.”

The spate of policy decisions harming black and Latinx communities in obvious and hidden ways exposed the need for North Carolina’s civic engagement network to build power with an explicit focus on race. “Blueprint’s racial equity lens began in 2013,” Byrd said. “Our partners said to us, we need you to go hard on racial equity work. We changed our operating principles so we can be held accountable and we can hold you accountable. We created a racial equity working group to determine how we can shift the culture of our infrastructure. It manifests in the alliances we have and how we align strategy, raise money and hold each other accountable. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy all the time, because it’s hard. A lot of people think racial equity means ‘be nicer to black people.’ It actually means white people get free too. I really believe our liberation is tied together.” 

For some organizations, like those building power among immigrant communities, a racial equity agenda is core to the work itself. And that work is dependent on strong relationships with other communities pursuing common interests. “Building power together will take alliances, relationships and coalition building with other communities that have expertise, votes, interest in creating change,” said Parra. “I’m not as interested as I used to be 20 years ago in building power only for Latinos. I want to spend my time building things that are sustainable, long-term and have a larger chance to win. We could organize all the immigrants in North Carolina and still not have sufficient power to do what we need to do. Our work stands on the shoulders of African Americans who have been battling these challenges for years and years, for solutions complementary to our own self interests. That ability to develop authentic relationships that cut across race and other differences is very critical.” 

“Building an analysis about what anti-black racism looks like and building a pro-black organizing strategy, you can build a multicultural perspective – like a police accountability network that says, ‘black lives matter’ but is also talking about the criminalization of immigration,” said Gonzalez. “Racial equity is not just a set of talking points. It’s about working-class solidarity. It’s day-to-day practice. It is a way of doing and being in this work.”

Beyond building a culture and approach that takes into account the history and manifold legacies of structural and institutional racism, some organizations are intentionally seeking out places where racist activity is most prevalent, offering alternatives and countering the isolation and hopelessness that can make people vulnerable to harmful ideologies. “We choose our turf because we know white supremacy is there,” said Todd Zimmer, Co-Director of Down Home North Carolina, a group that began organizing working people in rural parts of the state after taking a hard look at the factors that delivered the hard-right turn of 2016. “There was only one voice out there and it was pumping out white supremacy and corporate rule. Racial division is one of the sharpest tools our opposition has against us. If we’re not building something else, young people are really susceptible to it.” 

Racial violence poses a real threat to people working toward greater equity for all. Organizers and volunteers across the South are frequent targets of harassment and threats, which has a chilling effect on people who would otherwise attend a meeting, knock on doors or drive their neighbors to the polls. Some fear losing their jobs or having their homes vandalized. In areas of white supremacist allegiance, there is a very real risk of physical violence, and sometimes the risk comes from the very people sworn to protect and serve. “There is a sheriff in North Carolina who is notoriously racist and collaborates with neo-confederate groups,” Zimmer said. “They make us stand outside at night just to go to public meetings we have a right to go to. The Proud Boys put stickers on our offices. If someone wants to do us harm, they’re gonna succeed and there’s not much we can do. It’s part of the work. Bad things will happen before we get real results.”

Some people, like Blueprint’s Eastern North Carolina Organizer Courtney Patterson, try not to dwell on the hazards. “My wife thinks about it more than I do. It’s an obstacle. If I thought about it, I wouldn’t do the work.”

Issue organizing

The most important way organizers connect with communities is by listening to them. “We start a chapter by going into a county, not presuming to know what they want us to work on,” said Zimmer. “We get our mandates from knocking on doors. The core of our work is to build new leaders and help folks find their role to move their community to a new place. We bring those leaders together to do shared training and political analysis to find the through lines.”

Zimmer said Down Home surfaced many priorities – some that make headlines and others that don’t rise to the attention of policymakers: Medicaid expansion, the opioid crisis, needle exchanges, Narcan, bail funds. “We are not single-issue. We work on any issue our members want us to work on, meeting an immediate community need to bring people in.”

La’Meshia Whittington-Kaminski, a Friends of the Earth campaigner and Blueprint fellow who also consults on redistricting issues with Democracy NC, agrees organizing begins with addressing people’s most pressing concerns. “The same areas with highest lung and bronchial cancer are where we find the Atlantic Coast Coastline, gerrymanders and coal ash. What are we doing to alleviate these day-to-day problems wrought by big corporations?”

Patterson echoes the need to drop assumptions, listen first, then act. “Voter registration and GOTV are important work, but if we can get people to talk about the issues that affect their lives, you don’t have to drop ‘em off at the polls. They’ll come and bring others. We’ve partnered with eight or nine groups across eastern North Carolina, and one of the goals is to bring people together for mass meetings to talk about things like health care, money bail, hurricane recovery – whatever we can start a conversation with, to have people understand that by coming together, they have power to create change.”

Immigrant-serving organizations also distill priorities through listening sessions across the state. “What are policies that allow people to have access to a good life, like access to loans, health services and trust with police?” asks Parra. “Some of our leaders are not able to drive long distances, which obligates us to work in chapters and find opportunities to advance policies at the local level. We also look for ways to bring together all the leaders we have statewide, expose candidates to our community and leverage the aggregated power we have.”

Connecting in rural places

Geography poses distinct challenges in a state that’s mostly rural. “It’s harder to do the work because our folk are so spread out,” said Patterson. “It costs more to do work in those areas – even just finding a place so people don’t have to drive 20 miles to a meeting.”

Eighty of the state’s 100 counties are rural, a landscape exploited by district-drawing and vote-suppressing politicians, as well as white supremacist groups looking for recruits. “Our analysis is the progressive movement in general needs to build permanent infrastructure that can build the bigger ‘we’ we need,” Zimmer said. “How do we cover that terrain in a way that’s deep and transformative? How do we reach people at the ends of dirt roads? We have to win rural if we want to win anywhere.”

Blueprint also identified this gap and began funding more rural organizations in 2018, particularly in the eastern part of the state, where intensifying hurricanes and flooding pose perennial challenges. “After Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Eastern North Carolina suffered serious flooding and voting dropped off,” said Byrd. “There is infrastructure there – the community economic development movement, environmental justice movement, health equity – but there was no general support, get-out-the-vote, powerbuilding or organizing money. People feel like their desires and needs are not being represented. We want a robust democracy with fair representation. We can’t win without the east and we can’t win without rural communities that are the backbone of the country.”

“Our primary constituents are African American and Latinx people from I95 to the coast, South Carolina to Virginia,” said Patterson, who lives in the region he described. “That’s a large portion of voters. With Hurricane Florence, people realized importance of being vocal and the need to build power among themselves because FEMA sends all this money into counties, but many people who are poor don’t have insurance or credit, and have others selecting solutions for them that don’t fit their needs.”

Natural disasters have a way of coalescing communities to help one another. “In a crisis, I saw mass cross-pollination taking the leadership of black and brown people – not FEMA and the Red Cross, but our people,” said Byrd. “We were able to galvanize people wanting to help. People had relationships Blueprint was able to invest in, not create.”

That investment in existing groups allows Blueprint to rally people to a cause. “We’re building a database so we can call people together for an action for a health care bill or budget or whatever it is,” said Patterson. “Groups we fund are people already in communities, know their communities, and can mobilize them.”

“We’re working toward one North Carolina that can move together, that respects regional identities based in really different experiences,” Zimmer said. “We’re all North Carolinians. We’re all working people. We’re gonna win all together or lose all broke up. Getting to the place where all our members feel the need to take action because one community got hit by a hurricane – that’s what we’re working toward.”

Sustained, general operating support allows organizations to cover unforeseen costs like transportation, food or security for organizers and volunteers pushing for racial equity in dangerous places. And it helps them respond rapidly and effectively to the ever-shifting context, achieve gains and hold ground against harmful policies year-round, not just at election time. “Blueprint would get this election cycle money in October, and we were expected to turn massive amounts of voters out in November,” said Byrd. “All the wins we have now are due to a development of relationships and the investment in the infrastructure – flexibility, trust, conversations, the willingness to ask, ‘what do you need?’ instead of saying, ‘this is what I think you should get.’ It is an infrastructure I’m proud to be part of now.”

North Carolina’s nickname is the Old North State, and its motto is esse quam videri, “to be rather than to seem,” a reminder for North Carolinians to fully embody the virtues and values they proclaim. Its civic engagement network is pushing for a stronger North State – one with a truly fair, participatory democracy that values racial equity and finds virtue in the common good.




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